What Is This USWNT Player’s Deal: Sophia Smith
10:30 AM EDT on June 23, 2023
Welcome to What Is This USWNT Player's Deal, a recurring series in which Defector selects a name from the American players most likely to go to the Women's World Cup this summer and answers the question: What is this USWNT player’s deal?
When the U.S. women's national team roster was announced on Wednesday, my eyes went directly to one player, and not just because I had already claimed her for one of these previews. While there are many (many) questions that can be asked about coach Vlatko Andonovski's selections for defense (no Casey Krueger, really?) and the decision to leave Ashley Hatch back home in favor of 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson (this one might make more sense; Hatch was more likely in competition with Lynn Williams, who is just a bit better), there is one name on the roster that belongs not just at the tournament, but at the forefront of the conversation heading into the World Cup. Sophia Smith is, to me, the most important player for the USWNT this summer, and she might have to become its biggest star if the team is to complete a three-peat of World Cups in Australia and New Zealand next month.
Smith's resume is already as good as any 22-year-old's could be. She won a national championship at Stanford in 2019, scoring a hat trick along the way in the semifinal against UCLA. She was picked number one by the Portland Thorns in the 2020 draft. She was called up to the USWNT at the age of 16 in 2017. She won the NWSL MVP last season, and the Championship MVP as the Thorns lifted their third league trophy. And in 29 appearances for the national team, she has 12 goals. In other words, it is Sophia Smith's time, and the rest of the World Cup is on notice.
Who Does She Play For?
As mentioned above, Smith plays for the Portland Thorns. Well, she stars for the Thorns, to be more accurate. Forty-six league appearances have netted her 25 domestic goals, and she's coming off an 18-goal season, across all competitions. So far in the 2023 season, Smith has seven goals in 12 appearances, though she's just busted out of a slump, by her high standards: After scoring four goals in the opening two matches of the season, including her first hat-trick for the Thorns, Smith went seven league games, and two NWSL Challenge Cup matches, without a goal.
No matter, though, as she has picked it right back up in the last three, scoring one goal each against OL Reign, the Orlando Pride, and the Chicago Red Stars. The Thorns currently sit in second place on the NWSL standings, just one point behind the Washington Spirit, and Smith is in second for goals scored, with her seven putting her one back of Kerolin's eight. Oh, and just to add some spice to the whole meal, Smith also leads the league with five assists, one ahead of her Thorns teammate Sam Coffey (another questionable exclusion from the World Cup roster, it must be said) and Megan Rapinoe of the Reign.
The Lindsey Horan Magnifique Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does She Play?
Sophia Smith can do it all. Well, almost all, but let's tackle her strengths before we get to her sole weakness. At either the tip of an attacking spear or on the flanks, Smith makes tremendous use of open space, often playing on the shoulder of the last defender and sprinting by to latch onto through balls. This is a great skill to have on Portland, a team that loves to play a quick counterattack, though I guess this is a chicken-or-the-egg situation. After all, if you have Smith constantly getting behind defenders, why wouldn't you play counters as much as possible to take advantage?
When she does get into goalscoring positions, Smith is good with either foot; though nominally a righty, she scores with her left with almost as much frequency, and she can score with either from anywhere in the attacking third. Smith won't shy away from trying to do just that: She takes 6.38 shots per 90 minutes, a figure that sees her in the top two percent of all forwards across the top eight competitions in the world. Similarly, she creates shots a similar clip, notching 5.77 shot-creating actions per 90.
With the ball at her feet, Smith might be even more impressive. She often tracks back into the midfield to grab the ball and progress up the field herself; see the Cool Highlight section below for a good example of that. She will take on anyone at anytime to get there, too: She completes almost three take-ons per 90 minutes, good for the top two percent once again.
All of this makes Smith the center of any offense that she is in, a hybrid creator-dribbler-scorer made in a lab to frustrate opposing defenses. Think you can cut off her counters? Fine, she'll simply slot back and pull strings to her more open teammates. Pressure her on the ball so she can't find those assists? Oops, she just dribbled past you and your entire defense. Forgot about her for just a moment? That's a goal.
If there is one way to keep Smith from increasing her team's lead in a variety of ways, it's to force her to be a traditional No. 9, a back-to-the-goal building block. She only stands 5-foot-6 and is not an aerial powerhouse by any means; if you can cut off her service and force lobbed crosses into the box, that's a win any day of the week for the defense. She's also not the most accurate of passers in possession, at least when it's not the final ball she's hunting. Her 62 percent pass completion is fine in her current role, because she's not being asked to recycle attacks and set up new possessions, but if a team can force her into that role, she loses a lot of her value.
Still, though, as NWSL defenses have found out in her short career, it is hard to stop Smith from doing whatever she wants. That she also works very hard on defense to create chaos and, in turn, create easier chances for herself once she steals the ball back is just the cherry on top.
The Parental Recognition Index
The Parental Recognition Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will become a big enough star at the World Cup that one of your parents will send you a text message about them.
While there are certainly players that your parents will recognize on the USWNT roster from the last World Cup, Sophia Smith is probably the most likely newcomer to elicit a rousing text message exchange this time around. She's really got it all: She's incredible to watch, she's fast, she'll score goals, and she's young, so the focus will be on her during this somewhat transitional tournament for the USWNT. There is a 99.9 percent chance that your mom will, at some point, text you "soooooooooooph! <3" during the World Cup after one of her goals, and a 100 percent chance that it won't be the only text you get about Smith this summer.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
How Does She Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Smith's aforementioned versatility and ability to both score and create makes her an easy fit across any part of the attacking band. Given that Andonovski is not bringing a traditional out-and-out striker—Alex Morgan is the closest to that, but she's always fit more into the mobile forward archetype—he could play Smith in the No. 9 role, just as Portland did last year en route to her winning the NWSL MVP. If and when Morgan starts, though, Smith would be easily slotted to either wing, more likely the right side. She's similar to Trinity Rodman in that way, and it's not unlikely that the USWNT will line up both on either side of Morgan this summer. Whether they stay on the side that they start on is a different question, and that type of mobility and adaptability might be this team's best strength.
How Close Is She To The Hypothetical Best XI?
If Smith isn't the first name on the team sheet, she should be close. While there are questions up and down the field for the USWNT—Where does the center back depth come from? Who starts in the midfield? What combination of attackers will Andonovski line up against which type of opponent?—the answer for "Should Sophia Smith start every single game and play as many minutes as possible?" is an easy "yes."
The game becomes easier for everyone when Smith is in there, whether it be from her preternatural ability to find the open spaces with and without the ball, or whether it comes from her talent in just scoring some much-needed bangers. She might be turning just 23 during the tournament, but Smith has the experience and confidence that you want in a World Cup-winning forward. The question here then becomes "How good can a Sophia Smith-led Best XI truly be?" The answer will do as much as anything to decide the USWNT's fate at the World Cup.